What the Pell? Ways to Support First-generation Students During FAFSA Season

Many students in the Kauffman Scholars program will be the first in their families to attend college. We’re currently in the midst of what I call “FAFSA Season.” FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which compiles information about your family finances and your ability to pay for college, providing eligibility for Pell Grants and other income-based aid.  Every year I guide students through the entire process, addressing detours into complicated situations that can arise at any point between January and August. I’ve learned some key lessons, especially when working with families who have limited experience with college or financial aid.  

The FAFSA includes more than 100 questions and a list of unfamiliar acronyms, phrases and terminology. While there are excellent resources on the web, namely Federal Student Aid, families without prior exposure need additional support. Families benefit from a customized advising experience, preferably face-to-face, throughout the entire financial aid process. One practice I find particularly useful is walking students through a FAFSA demo screen-by-screen, pointing out potential problem areas along the way. Once the FAFSA is submitted, work is far from done–see Federal Student Aid’s rundown of next steps and FAQs. Students still need individualized assistance deciphering additional requirements–for instance, accessing the student aid report, understanding verification and deciding which aid to accept or decline.  

Early exposure is critical in building a college-going mindset. Waiting until senior year to talk about financial aid is too late, especially for first-generation students. Tools like the FAFSA4caster and colleges’ net price calculators help younger students plan for college expenses in advance. Plus, current high school juniors will start filing the FAFSA this October because of the changes taking place for the 2017-18 school year.

Several organizations and school districts collaborate to assist in FAFSA completion. Students across Kansas City, including those in the Kauffman Scholars program, benefit from the efforts of the Educational Opportunity Center, Missouri College Advising Corps, KU Talent Search and Missouri Department of Higher Education’s FAFSA Frenzy. School districts host financial aid nights, and colleges reach out to seniors through a variety of events, such as senior days or early orientations. Also, Next Step KC VITA offers free tax preparation for qualifying taxpayers. Each program offers personal support to families. The more opportunities for help available, the more likely families are to not just file the FAFSA, but to feel comfortable with the process. Closing the financial aid information gap plays a vital role in transitioning ownership of the process from the advisor to the student. As a result, college becomes a more tangible goal.

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Meaghan Higgins

Meaghan Higgins joined Kauffman Scholars in the Summer of 2012 as an intern. Meaghan later transitioned to a full-time associate and now serves as a Postsecondary Advisor.